Leadership Stories: Alison Maitland a “feisty feminist” and acclaimed author

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Alison Maitland, Vice Chair of IWF UK, is an author, speaker and coach. She gained her global perspective on work and organisations as a journalist at the Financial Times and has co-authored three books on women and business, the future of work and inclusion. Alison shares her views on “collective” leadership and the importance of agile working.

What does being a leader mean to you?

I wrestled with this question. To me, it’s easier to answer ‘What does being a good leader mean to you?’

I’ve observed and studied leadership for decades, as a journalist and author, exploring the good, bad and mediocre. The media feed on a human desire to build up leaders into superhumans and then just as eagerly pull them off their pedestal when they fail to live up to superhuman expectations. This is a narrow and distorted view of leadership. But the idea of being ‘above others’ is alluring and goes to many leaders’ heads.

Searching for something more real, I’ve come to see good leadership as collective. This builds on the ideas of the management theorist Mary Parker Follett, who said nearly a century ago that exercising power with people through participative decision-making was more effective than exercising coercive power over people. It took a woman to point out that management had to be about human beings, not just analysis and efficiency. How ahead of her time she was!

The best leaders have humility as well as courage, and create the space for others to flourish and grow. They also see the whole, not just the particles. And that speaks to leading with others. None of us can see the whole picture alone. We need to call on other people’s strengths and perspectives, and learn when to step in and when to let others do so.

A transformational experience for me was taking part in a Collective Leadership programme, which connects people at a very deep level and inspires them to do things they didn’t believe possible. This felt like my kind of leadership. It also inspired me to become a coach. When leadership is in service of others and of creating a better world, it is enormously fulfilling.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

Regarding challenges, I think it’s easier to speak out and challenge norms when you’re young or when you’re a lot older. The middle years, especially if you have a family and mortgage, are harder times to take risks.

As a feisty young feminist not long out of university, I challenged the guys where I worked to remove the girlie calendars on the wall. They wouldn’t, so I took them down myself. I can still remember my heart pounding. It didn’t make me popular, but the calendars did not go back up.

Many of the best things I’ve done have involved big challenges, and initial discomfort, or even fear. A pivotal moment in my career was when I was offered a dream job as a reporter for Reuters in Paris. My partner had a fascinating job as a journalist in London that he understandably did not want to give up. So it meant living apart for up to three years – what seemed an age at the time – and I was the one moving away to start a new job in a new culture where I knew almost no one.

A few traditionally minded family friends disapproved of my unconventionality. One of them bought my partner a tin opener because ‘Alison won’t be there to cook for you’! Given that he’s a wonderful cook, this observation irked us both.

The risk involved in stepping into the unknown paid off. The experience I gained in France boosted my career. It was extraordinary to get to know another culture so deeply. And my partner became my beloved husband.

Another pivotal decision was to leave the Financial Times after 20 wonderful years there. This time I had profile and an extensive network. I knew I wanted to build more of a portfolio career to create change. But it still took some courage to step out of the safety of employment with a big brand name. It turned out to be the right move. I found it hugely liberating and exciting to be my own boss and do my own thing, and to choose who to collaborate with to make the greatest impact.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

Well, I’m most proud of my daughters, who have grown into inspiring young women – and of the partnership with my husband, sharing equally in their upbringing. We were both able to carry on demanding professions while giving as much time to our family as possible. We were fortunate to have enlightened employers and the ability to work flexibly. I was one half of the first reporter job-share at the FT. Agile working is essential for today’s workforce, and I’m staggered that some employers still can’t see the business sense of it.

Professionally, I’m probably most proud of the books I’ve written, because of the sheer monumental work involved – it’s a labour of love. I’ve co-authored each of them, and collaborated well with three very different people on intense and fulfilling projects.

I’m also chuffed that I’ve learned the skills and gift of coaching fairly late in my career. In doing so, I’ve trained and connected with people mostly much younger than me and driven by similar motivations, which is a joy.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

  • Get to know your core values as early as you can. Use them as your guiding stars, especially when you hit fog or turbulence.
  • Don’t be constrained by other people’s ideas of success. Work out what matters most to you, and use that as a measure of your success
  • Pay attention to the bigger picture, not just your specialist work.
  • Reflect on what may be just over the horizon, and what part you want to play in it.
  • Learn how to get the best out of others and how your collective impact can be much greater.
  • Guide and support those coming up behind. You’ll be amazed by the effect it has, even if you don’t hear about it until years later.

When leadership is in service of others and of creating a better world, it is enormously fulfilling.

Alison Maitland
Alison Maitland

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